MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin’s football team has completed 12 of 15 spring practices, as the Badgers head into the final week before the offseason arrives. Several young players have earned an opportunity for extensive work on the field, and they have taken advantage of the reps.
Here are five players who have stood out during Wisconsin’s spring practices.
CB Madison Cone
Before spring practice began, Madison Cone was a likely candidate to earn a starting cornerback job. But he has lived up to that designation during practice in a group that has plenty of talent and competition. Dontye Carriere-Williams is in position to open the season as the other starting cornerback, with Caesar Williams and Faion Hicks ready to contribute as well. Hicks had 2 interceptions during one practice earlier in the spring, and Williams came down with an impressive interception during practice Friday.
Cone played in 9 games last season but recorded only 1 tackle and 1 pass breakup. Coaches thought enough of him to put him in late against Miami in the Orange Bowl, and he notched his first career pass breakup. Cone said that appearance gave him more confidence entering the spring. On Thursday, he cut across a pass attempt from quarterback Danny Vanden Boom and intercepted it, returning it for what would have been a touchdown.
“From last year to this year, I definitely feel a lot more comfortable, confident on the football field,” Cone said. “I feel like it jumped from like 3 to 10. Just coming in here, coming from high school where everybody’s the man where they come from. But then coming in and seeing it’s a whole new world. Just learning how to play the position and then learning technique. …
“From last spring to this spring, it’s just a huge jump. Our group is so young, I kind of feel like a vet. The younger guys, I talk to them all the time about the dos and don’ts. It’s just been great. I’ve got a lot of confidence going into this season.”
WR Aron Cruickshank
Aron Cruickshank is listed at 5-foot-9 and 152 pounds. Nobody else on Wisconsin’s entire spring roster weighs less than 170 pounds. But what Cruickshank possesses is speed, and that could make him a valuable weapon this season. It will be difficult for any young player to break into the two-deep given that the Badgers already have Quintez Cephus, A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor. Perhaps Cruickshank could sneak his way onto the field as a slot receiver. He very well may challenge for a role as a kick or punt return man.
During practice Tuesday, Cruickshank made a phenomenal one-handed grab while falling to the turf during red zone drills. He added a 45-yard touchdown catch in 7-on-7 drills. On Thursday, Cruickshank hauled in an acrobatic bobbling catch down the right sideline that went for a 60-yard touchdown from quarterback Jack Coan. He was at it again during a team scrimmage Friday, breaking through would-be tacklers on a jet sweep. He has routinely dazzled teammates as an early enrollee and even prompted inside linebacker T.J. Edwards, an All-American last year, to call him “straight lightning.”
“I think Aron’s done some things that have been good and have earned him certainly the right for reps in the fall,” Badgers coach Paul Chryst said.
TE Jake Ferguson
Jake Ferguson has garnered considerable praise through spring practice because of his ability to catch nearly every pass thrown in his direction. The 6-5, 240-pound redshirt freshman has excellent size and hands. Although he needs to continue to work on his blocking skills, he could be someone capable of stepping in and filling the void left behind by Big Ten tight end of the year Troy Fumagalli.
Ferguson, who earned offensive scout team MVP honors last season, said he had gained nearly 30 pounds since arriving on campus. He spent last season learning from Fumagalli and hopes to use that knowledge on the field in 2018.
“Just sitting behind him in the line and watching him go through his footwork and his mentality, I definitely picked up a lot from it,” Ferguson said. “We’d be running (skeleton) and he’d come back and he’d say, ‘Hey, did you see how I slipped that guy or did this and that?’ I was basically taking mental notes the whole time I was watching him. It definitely helped me and I definitely use a lot of that this spring just trying to get better with it.”
WR Taj Mustapha
Taj Mustapha and Cruickshank are two of Wisconsin’s five early enrollees and the only two in the group that play on offense. Mustapha is 6-foot and 192 pounds and uses his body well to haul in catches. He made an impressive touchdown catch in traffic to close Wisconsin’s scrimmage two Fridays ago. Last Friday, Mustapha caught a difficult pass between two defenders and hung on to the ball after absorbing contact.
It may be tough for Mustapha to crack the rotation this season given just how many capable receivers return. But if nothing else, Mustapha and Cruickshank have shown that the future at the position is bright.
S Scott Nelson
Scott Nelson has been among the impressive defensive backs on Wisconsin’s roster during spring practice. With D’Cota Dixon out this spring while recovering from a shoulder injury, Nelson has earned first-team reps at safety alongside Patrick Johnson.
Nelson redshirted last season but made the travel team late in the season. He and Dixon are nearly inseparable on and off the football field. Dixon spent more than 30 minutes working with Nelson after practice Thursday, which is not unusual.
“We go a lot of places together,” Nelson said. “We hang out a ton. We could be talking about something completely different and then all of a sudden it switches to football. He knows so much. He’s played so much. So why wouldn’t I be around him as much?
“I think that’s my mentality. Obviously he’s a great friend, he’s a brother. But he’s helped me so much with the confidence. I believe you have to know the playbook. He wants me to know the playbook better than him. It’s always competing, but he’s helped me tremendously.”